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Shakespeare with conviction

Brian Doxtader | Thursday, October 5, 2006

William Shakespeare once wrote “we know what we are, but know not what we may be.” That ideology has been put into practice in Shakespeare Behind Bars, a rehabilitating program that’s the subject of the documentary of the same name.

In Shakespeare Behind Bars, prisoners at the Luther Luckett Correction Complex in LaGrange, Kent. read, study and perform plays by the Bard. The documentary, originally released in 2005, explores the lives of the inmates who participate in the program over the course of a year.

Curt Tofteland founded the program over a decade ago, growing out of a program called Books Behind Bars, a literature-based idea intended to curb juvenile delinquency. Tofteland used Books Behind Bars as a starting point, extrapolating its premise and applying it to theater.

“The intellectual discussion of a book gets to a certain level of intellectual discourse, perhaps engaging the emotions, but when you have to act and inhabit a character in a play, it takes you to a deeper level,” said Tofteland.

Shakespeare was an obvious and logical choice for Tofteland for a variety of reasons.

“He is the best writer about the human condition in any era, in any language, in any time period,” Tofteland said. “In every population, Shakespeare has something for them.”

Perhaps most appealing to Tofteland is that Shakespeare’s philosophies are manifested in dramatic form, which he says helps convicts to examine their characters and find the truth of those characters within themselves. He uses Macbeth as an example of a good man who does a bad thing, then faces the consequences of his decisions.

“The ‘therapeutic’ aspect of Shakespeare, in particular with my inmates, is that it allows them to explore their crime, but through an aesthetic, having an aesthetic distance from it,” said Tofteland. “In exploring that in an authentic way, they can discover their own journey to their own crime, and in many cases it’s a very cathartic and very epiphanic experience.”

Tofteland also points out that Shakespeare was a master storyteller whose vocabulary and sense of language remains unparalleled.

The program has been remarkably successful over the course of its 10-year existence. The national average for freed convicts who commit another crime is around 40 percent, while the rate for those involved in the Shakespeare Behind Bars program is almost zero.

The documentary came about when director Hank Rogerson, looking for new material, decided he wanted to do something involving theater. According to producer Jilann Spitzmiller, the Shakespeare Behind Bars program was immediately appealing because of its profundity and uniqueness.

Rogerson and his crew were granted special access to prison, allowing them to film over 174 hours of footage over the course of a 9-month shoot.

“It was pretty arduous to be in that prison for long periods of time,” Spitzmiller said. “There’s not one comfortable place. It’s very loud and very uncomfortable in a physical sense. You feel the weight of their incarceration.”

Spitzmiller had high praise for the inmates who participated in the Shakespeare program, noting their dedication, self-awareness and work ethic.

“You knew that the work being done before you was really profound,” said Spitzmiller. “It was an oasis that was very effective for turning on a light bulb for the guys who were ready. They have to be ready to go to their darkest, darkest moments and the darkest, darkest aspects of themselves.”

The film follows five of the inmates involved in the program as they prepare for a performance of “The Tempest.”

The film shows how the program helped the inmates discover things about themselves, especially during the confessional scenes, when each man admits to his crime. These confessionals were not prompted, as Tofteland emphasized that it was a rule that nobody from the film crew was allowed to ask about the crimes.

In other words, each inmate featured in the documentary elected to discuss their past, which both Tofteland and Spitzmiller believe helped them confront and move on from the things they had done.

“If you think about the worst things you’ve ever done, are you willing to go there and figure out why you did it and try to reconcile? A lot of us try to put it away,” Spitzmiller said. “I was impressed with the courage these men had.”

The documentary itself has been extraordinarily well-received, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005.

It also played at the New York Film Festival, where it was one of 16 documentaries shown out of over 660 that applied.

It has garnered 10 awards, including the Crystal Heart award at the Heartland Film Festival, and was a Grand Jury nominee at Sundance.

“I think that the film has a lot to offer any community that believes in

education and the power of education because that’s precisely what the film is about,” Tofteland said. “It isn’t just education of the brain, it’s at a much deeper level. It’s education of the heart.”

Tofteland points out that though it’s The Bard who is in the title of the film, “Shakespeare Behind Bars” is really about the inmates and their journeys.

“It is a film about prison, it is a film about Shakespeare, but it’s more about the power of art to heal. It’s about redemption, it’s about mercy and it’s about forgiveness.”

“Shakespeare Behind Bars” will be screened tonight in the Browning Cinema of the DPAC at 7 and 10. Tofteland will be present at the 7 p.m. screening.